While I respect his service and perspective on today's military strategy and issues, I was astonished and disappointed after reading retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Barno's column "Military Brain Drain." His premise was that current and former Army general officers are either dismissive or indignant at the notion that the best and brightest junior and mid-level officers are choosing to end their service. In fact, this sentiment is not at all a reflection of what I see or hear in my dealings with senior Army leaders or my peers. Furthermore, the evidence does not support his claims that the best are leaving. What an insult to the thousands who are in fact staying.
In mid-2010, former vice chief of staff of the Army, retired Gen. Jack Keane, was visiting Afghanistan at the invitation of the commander of International Security Assistance Forces, Gen. David Petraeus. What he observed during his visit were dozens of innovative, adaptive captains and lieutenants who were given enormous responsibilities and significant autonomy to solve complex problems. As the director of operations for Regional Command South, I was escorting Gen. Keane on his visit to southern Afghanistan. Flying by Blackhawk helicopter over Kandahar province, he gave me some stark, unsolicited words of advice. To paraphrase, Gen. Keane said the Army cannot make the mistake of returning to pre-war practices and policies, which would suffocate these battle-tested, proven leaders. The old bureaucratic approval processes for the simplest decisions, such as granting their troops time off, would cause them to quickly become disenchanted with the "garrison Army." This is the "brain drain" that Gen. Barno correctly warns against. But clearly, contrary to his assertion, senior Army leaders were already recognizing the potential problem and were looking at how to retain these terrific young men and women. I worry that Gen. Barno's article could succeed at perpetuating a self-defeating myth that the Army is somehow non-adaptive, too inflexible and unimaginative. This is nonsense and I reject it.
Both Gen. Barno and Tim Kane, who also wrote an article for FP on this topic, outlined some well-considered prescriptions, but your readers -- some of whom are likely the very leaders at the heart of this matter -- should know that Army senior leadership (past and present) is aware of and has responded to this concern.
Following more than two centuries of historical precedent, the Army was required to dramatically reduce its forces at the end of the Cold War and, repeating the cycle, had to grow rapidly after 9/11. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates once lamented, "Four times in the last century the United States has come to the end of a war, concluded that the nature of the world and man had changed for the better, and turned inward, unilaterally disarming and dismantling institutions important to our national security -- in the process, giving ourselves a so-called ‘peace' dividend. Four times we chose to forget history."
Here we go again. After working hard to grow quickly, we are once again undertaking a reduction of force, but this time Army leaders are determined to retain the very best talent while respecting and appreciating the service of all. The bottom line is that the Army is adapting to conditions it helped create and has committed resources, research, and training to ensure retention of its best officers and sergeants.
When he was chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Martin Dempsey said that the Army's goal is to be "the nation's preeminent leadership experience." As the saying goes, "follow the money." We have spent the capital to reward and harness the experience and energy of the most talented company and field-grade officers with an eye on tomorrow's Army. For those who have a record of strong performance and potential, the Army has expanded access to meaningful broadening opportunities as well as flexibility between assignments "in the line." Examples include graduate degree funding, the Olmsted Scholarship award, training with industry, and government fellowships with the White House, Congress, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- all of which involve some of the nation's best (and most expensive) universities. In my previous assignment, I was chief of the Army's Legislative Liaison Office. One of my duties was supervising our Congressional Fellowship Program. Each year, the Army pays for 23 officers and two senior sergeants to attend graduate school at George Washington University, followed by a year on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer, so they can apply and broaden their knowledge before assignment to their next duty station. The other services have taken notice and have begun to emulate the Army by implementing their own graduate study initiatives.